It Will Take More Than 16 Days: We Need Culture Change

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Dr. Anu Kumar

When I think of sexual violence, I think immediately of the horrific cases that are featured in the media: the rapes that occurred on the UNC campus, in the military, the Steubenville case that was captured in film and social media. And then I also think of the case of Rosa, a 9-year-old girl who was raped in Central America, or the girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in Northern Nigeria and held for hundreds of days, or the Yazidi women who were captured and held as sex slaves by ISIS. I think of the Democratic Republic on the Congo and Sierra Leone where rape is an act of war, and I think of my own country, India, and the horrible sexual assault of a college student on a bus in New Delhi. And then I think just how common an experience this is, how universal it is, and how women’s bodies are used and violated by a host of criminals, from individuals to terrorist organizations, religious organizations, and governments. The UN estimates that one-third of women around the world have experienced some form of sexual violence or harassment.

Because I work at Ipas, a global organization that works to improve access to safe abortion care and advance women’s reproductive rights, I also think about the consequences of sexual violence for the individual woman and those who love her: the emotional trauma, disease, unwanted pregnancy. Will the girls kidnapped in Northern Nigeria be able to access reproductive health services? Will the student health services at UNC provide comprehensive care to students who are sexually assaulted?

These are the practicalities of dealing with sexual violence. The kind of realities that the Orange County Rape Crisis Center — in my hometown of Chapel Hill, NC — deals with serving 550 women and men this past year. Women in pain. Women in crisis. Women and families in traumatic situations.

But why does this happen? Why is it so common? Why is it universal?

We can talk about the need to punish the perpetrators, about the need to have laws and policies that address the issues, about why and how sexual violence is a violation of human rights. And certainly the human rights framework provides us with a common language and approach. It reminds us that there are universally agreed upon standards that nations have on how human beings should be treated, that there is legal precedence that can be used to bring perpetrators to justice, that the violations of women’s rights that we see on a daily basis are wrong. And we’re not the only ones who think so. The world agrees with us.

But the conversation that we are just starting to have here and around the world is about culture. What is it about our culture(s) that permits this kind of brutality? You’ve no doubt heard the term “rape culture” in the press. It’s actually a fairly old term that refers to a set of beliefs that view male aggression as a positive and where sexual violence is considered sexy and desirable. The behaviors that stem from these beliefs range from hostile or inappropriate comments, touching, sexual violence, and rape. As horrible as these physical attacks are, I want to also be clear that rape culture is not just about actual physical violence. It’s the emotional terrorism that women and girls experience, the fear that guides many of our decisions, and the knowledge that our bodies aren’t fully our own.

As Pamela Fletcher said years ago: “not until we recognize that issues of rape culture are a global human rights issue can steps be taken to dismantle the current social and cultural norms and the issues of power in relation to the treatment of women and girls in regards to sexual assault.”

The interpretation of sexual violence is not uniform globally. As discourse analysis of media reports of sexual violence cases shows, there is a crucial difference in how sexual violence is conceptualized in the US and overseas. In the US, we tend to focus on the victim and the perpetrator, as individuals separate from the social systems that produced them and the situation that resulted in the violence. This leads people to judge the victim, find reasons for the attack, and not really consider the institutions and values that contribute to the problem. In some ways, this is an easier portrayal of the issue because it allows those of us who are not part of “the problem” to not have to participate. After all, we all make up those institutions and values, and so we’re both part of the problem and part of the solution.

In discussion of sexual violence cases overseas, the news media contextualize the stories and talk about the patriarchal norms and institutions that encourage the behavior. In the Delhi case, for example, there was discussion in the news media about caste, class, gender, even religion. In other words, sexual violence was thought of as symptomatic of a deeper societal problem. This lead to a consideration of laws and policies, the value that society places on girls and women, it brought more men as fathers and brothers into the discussion, and it crucially made sexual violence everyone’s problem.

To me, sexual violence is an extreme form of behavior that stems from a core belief about the relative worth of women and girls. There are many other manifestations of this belief that women and girls are less valuable to us than men and boys: denial of educational opportunities for women, sex discrimination of all sorts and in all sorts of sectors. But the physical attack of a woman’s body is among the most extreme manifestations of this general principle. And that’s why it is such a powerful act and so difficult to overcome for the survivor. It’s a complete denial of women’s agency.

So how will change occur? First, we must acknowledge that male supremacy is foundational to patriarchy. Without a true societal commitment to examining and addressing the social, political, and economic power men possess over women and children, rape culture will not cease.

It occurs in complex and often unpredictable ways, in big ways and small. Here are a few examples:

  • Normative changes at the United Nations that recognizes, for example, rape as a tactic of war.
  • The film The Hunting Ground presented an emotional case to the audience. The film was made by the survivors of sexual violence on the UNC campus, was screened on campus, and is being shown on CNN.
  • The creation and use of the phrase “rape culture” as a shorthand for the kind of belief system that permits the annihilation of women’s agency.
  • Raising our boys to be nurturing, non-violent, and to re-construct masculinity so it is not in opposition to femininity.
  • Raise our girls to reject messages about sexuality that are violent even if the messengers are women.
  • The education work done by the Center that reaches 15,000 people each year, including outreach to our young people in schools.

As we unite around the world for 16 Days Against Gender-Based Violence, let’s commit to real action. In struggling for worldwide change, we must strike at patriarchy, the very root of the problem, for true transformation. Is that easy? No. Is it quick? No. But it is powerful.

Dr. Anu Kumar gave this speech as the keynote of the Center’s 28th Annual Holiday Auction. Through experience with the World Health Organization, the MacArthur Foundation, and now as the Executive Vice President for Development, Communications, and Community Access at Ipas, Dr. Kumar has been a major public voice for global women’s reproductive health and rights.

Transgender Day of Remembrance

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Transgender Day of Remembrance (TDOR) is an annual event, during which members of the LGBTQ community and allies across the country gather and hold vigils to honor the memories of transgender men and women whose lives have been taken by acts of violence. This will be a big year for the TDOR vigil because since the first of the year, it’s estimated that 20 transgender individuals have been murdered in the United States… that we know of.

So what does this have to do with sexual violence?


The violence inflicted on transgender individuals includes rape and sexual assault. In fact, transgender individuals are at extremely high risk of becoming victims of sexual violence. The statistics are startling. It’s estimated that one in two transgender individuals have experienced sexual abuse or assault. The rates of sexual violence only increase when you take a deeper look at the transgender community. Those who are at the greatest risk of victimization are also the most marginalized members of the LGBTQ community and society at large:

  • Transgender youth – 12%
  • Transgender individuals of color – 13%
  • Transgender individuals who are homeless – 22%

Ok, that’s pretty rough, but that’s why we have rape crisis centers, right?

Yes, to an extent, that is true. However, transgender survivors face significant barriers when attempting to access support services. It is well known that the majority of all sexual assaults – 68% – are not reported to the police. Survivors have many valid reasons to not make a report, such as fear of retaliation, not wanting the offender to get in trouble (especially if the survivor knows them), fear of getting in trouble if they were using drugs or drinking underage when they were assaulted, fear of facing deportation if they are undocumented, and more. A major reason that sexual assaults go unreported is that survivors often feel re-victimized in the process, a type of trauma known as secondary victimization. Victim-blaming attitudes and insensitivity on the part of service providers further traumatizes survivors, especially those who identify as transgender or gender non-conforming.  In the case of transgender individuals, the perpetrators of sexual violence are sometimes service providers, institutions, and “helping” professionals themselves. Many transgender survivors have reported being sexually assaulted by police officers and health care professionals.

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In Appreciation of SANE Nurses

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In honor of International Forensic Nurse’s Week, we acknowledge the effort and dedication of the highly trained cadre of SANE nurses that provide sensitive and skillful medical attention to survivors of sexual assault. SANE stands for Sexual Assault Nurse Examiner, a specialization that is necessary, beneficial, and valuable. SANE nurses receive extensive training to fulfill two equally important roles: collecting forensic evidence and providing trauma-informed medical care to survivors.

The forensic exam, also called an evidence collection kit or a rape kit, is a medical procedure that not only provides basic medical attention and care, but also systematically gathers, documents, and records signs of a crime. This may include DNA evidence from hair, saliva, semen, or other bodily fluids as well as documentation of physical injuries. If called for, it may also include drug testing for the presence of “date rape drugs” like GHB or rohypnol (although most SANE nurses are well aware that the majority of drug-facilitated sexual assaults occur through the use of alcohol instead of other drugs). In addition to a physical medical exam, SANEs may also collect clothing or other personal items as part of evidence. Above and beyond their medical duties, SANEs may be called to testify in court if evidence from a forensic exam makes it to trial.

Throughout the process of collecting evidence, SANEs provide trauma-informed medical care, which means they have an awareness of how trauma impacts the survivor’s experience as a patient. Thanks to media portrayals, we often assume that victims of trauma will react in a specific way: hysterical, crying, and distraught. While some survivors certainly do react that way, there is a very wide range of ‘normal’ responses, from vehement anger to numbed calmness, or anything beyond and in between. Although some people might label these behaviors as difficult or problematic, trauma-informed health care providers recognize that these vast and varied expressions come from a place of survivors trying to make sense out of a scary and unpredictable situation.

To all the SANEs who provide expert medical care to survivors of sexual assault, we thank you. You are a vital resource in our communities, a fierce ally in the struggle to end sexual violence, and a stepping stone on the path toward healing.

Natalie Ziemba is our Crisis Response Coordinator. She manages the Center’s 24-Hour Help Line, oversees our volunteer Companions, coordinates the Orange County SART, bakes delicious cookies, and more.

“This thing… it’s gonna follow you”

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An Exploration of Rape Trauma Syndrome in It Follows

Horror films have a complicated and long history of depictions of rape. As many people have pointed out before me (most famously in Carol J. Clover’s Men, Women, and Chainsaws: Gender in the Modern Horror Film), the violence in horror movies tends to be undeniably gendered, sexualized, and unabashedly voyeuristic. Also, let’s not forget rape/revenge films: a cult subgenre of horror in which an assault survivor creatively dismembers her (often multiple) attackers after being similarly brutalized herself on screen.

At first glance, it may seem that the rape/revenge subgenre might be empowering for survivors. However, it nearly always simply serves as a vehicle for more and more sensational and gratuitous violence and, ultimately, a reinforcement of the status quo for our society’s understanding of survivorship. While these movies include sexual assault as a direct part of the plot, others feature story lines that present allegories for survivorship — intentionally or not.

One such movie is It Follows, an independent film released last March that was described to me as a story about “a sexually-transmitted haunting.” This phrasing immediately made me think of STI prevention and safe sex cautionary tales. As a lover of horror and sex education, I was on board immediately. I expected images and metaphors of disease transmission, condom use, or the plague fear-mongering so commonly seen in modern zombie films. But instead, the visuals and set-up of this film immediately brought trauma response to mind.

Admittedly, it is not uncommon for me to see symptoms of trauma when they are not intentionally being depicted. I work one-on-one with sexual assault survivors as a Companion, and I am a rape survivor myself who experienced a case of Rape Trauma Syndrome which lasted for years, so it’s not unnatural for me to read my own experiences and training into the media I’m consuming. By the director’s own admission of the inspiration for the film – a recurring dream he has had since childhood – I sincerely doubt the meaning I took from the film was intentional on his part. However, I saw it with a friend of mine, also a survivor, who saw the same metaphors that I did. Maybe the intentions of media aren’t quite as important as the messages the audience can take from it. I believe this is especially true for survivors of sexual assault, who often never feel safe or comfortable publicly identifying as a survivor. In such an isolated state, it’s common for survivors to feel like they are ‘crazy’ or overreacting. Without honest, accurate, and sympathetic depictions of the toll of sexual assault, survivors will continue to feel like they are damaged and alone in their trauma symptoms.

Rape trauma syndrome (RTS), a form of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), is a stress response very commonly experienced by survivors of sexual assault and rape. Symptoms can occur immediately after an assault and may continue for months or even years afterwards. It is characterized by disruptions to normal physical, emotional, and social functionality. Physical symptoms can include shock, sleep and eating disturbances, and fatigue. Behavioral and emotional symptoms cover many issues including disorientation, purposefully isolating oneself, fear of being alone, crying more than usual, feeling restless or agitated, emotional numbness, hypersexuality, increased anxiety, feelings of guilt, feeling alone, and more.

Every survivor’s emotional experiences after an assault are uniquely personal, and symptoms can be as varied as they can be damaging. The symptoms I’ve listed here are only a few of those possible, and I chose to only include symptoms that I saw depicted in the film, which should give you some indication of the scope and variety of RTS experiences.

It Follows focuses on the story of Jay, a girl in her late teens or early twenties living with her inattentive mother and sister. The horror portion of the film doesn’t really start until Jay goes on a third date with a guy named Hugh, who seems to be roughly her age. After having consensual sex with Jay, he then chooses to chloroform her and tie her to a wheelchair in an abandoned parking garage. He does this in order to have an opportunity to force her to listen to some very unbelievable and time-sensitive warnings. He tells her:

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Legislative Updates from NCCASA

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The following are legislative updates from the North Carolina Coalition Against Sexual Assault (NCCASA), provided by Executive Director Monika Johnston-Hostler and Staff Attorney Joe Polich.

New Laws Passed – Long Session 2015

Women and Children’s Protection Act of 2015 – Session Law 2015- 62

Signed by Governor on June 5, 2015

  • Increases wait times and administrative burdens for those seeking and providing abortion services
  • Provides for electronic filing of all 50B and 50C proceedings in all counties in North Carolina
  • Changes the age definitions for statutory rape crimes in NC from “13, 14, or 15 years old” to “15 years old or younger.”

Joe’s take: Electronic filing is a huge success in pilot counties in North Carolina – including Alamance and Guilford counties. Electronic filing increases access to the civil legal system and streamlines the court proceedings in general. In counties with electronic filing, all parties will leave the hearing with copies of any pertinent orders and those orders will already be filed with the Clerk of Court.

No-Contact Order/No ExpirationSession Law 2015-91

Signed by Governor on June 19, 2015

  • Creates Chapter 50D, which provides a non-expiring civil no-contact order for victims of sex offenses that resulted in a criminal conviction
  • Violation of a 50D order is an A1 misdemeanor (the most serious misdemeanor charge)
  • There are increased penalties for the commission of a felony that violates the order

Joe’s take: the 50D order does not require victims of sexual assault to re-live the experience in open court every year to renew their order. However, the major shortcoming to the new 50D order is that it requires a criminal conviction of the perpetrator, which we know is difficult at best to obtain. On the plus side, these orders “have teeth,” violations carry serious consequences.

Protect Our Students Act – Session Law 2015-44

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From the Director’s Desk

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Shamecca BryantDear Friends,

With so many great memories and friendships developed, it is bittersweet for me to share with all of you that I will be leaving the Center at the end of this year.

These last eight years have been an incredible ride. The Center is truly a special place, driven by its mission and commitment to ending violence in our community. Working on behalf of survivors has been so rewarding, and I have all of you to thank for that. Thank you for giving me the opportunity to do this important work.

You are the reason that the Center exists and continues to serve as a safe space for survivors. Each year, we have the privilege of impacting thousands of lives. The support and healing that happens within and beyond our walls is bigger than all of us.

I have expressed my admiration to my colleagues, and I also want to recognize all of you as you advocate in this movement to end violence. All of us are keeping survivors’ stories alive so that the silence does not continue.

Know that our Board of Directors is working diligently to ensure a seamless transition for the agency. Updates on the search process will be posted to our website.

My very best wishes to everyone as we continue to move boldly into a future without violence.

With much appreciation,

Shamecca Q. Bryant
Executive Director

Press Release: Executive Director Transition, Oct 15

Consent Under the Influence?

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Alcohol and sex are commonly tied to one another. We see it intermingled in headlines, advertisements, and rape myths. Media saturates seduction with booze everywhere you turn, but why is drunk sex considered a socially acceptable thing?

I want to start an honest conversation about drinking and sex. I don’t want to say that drunken sex is always wrong and, most importantly, I do not want to victim blame. There is absolutely no question that affirmative consent should always be clear, constant, and coherent. If someone is intoxicated, they cannot give legal consent to a number of things, not just sex. After all, even in Vegas, you have to be sober to get married. Entering into any contractual agreement while incapacitated is usually voidable in the eyes of the law. This is because drinking is proven to decrease cognitive ability and awareness of risk. If you proposition someone while they are drunk, you are entering into dangerous territory, because this person may not be capable of assessing the situation.

Unfortunately, this is not common sense for many people. Many assume that if a person is not completely passed out, then they are accountable for their actions. In reality, the scientific evidence shows a wide spectrum of behaviors when someone is incapacitated. The appearance of being “blackout drunk” can be very different from one person to the next. Therefore, that “drunken escapade” may actually be rape.rape-time-to-stop

I don’t say this to place blame or to cause civil unrest. I say this because I want to cultivate empathy and encourage good judgment and open discussion within our community. The truth is that alcohol comes with a list of risks, and sexual violence can unfortunately be one of them. As a community we need to accept this and work on creating a healthy environment for sex that doesn’t revolve completely around alcohol.

So how do we start?

Don’t romanticize drunken sex. Intoxication dampens arousal and decreases coordination, which can lead to a nightmarish mix of fumbling and nausea. Furthermore, alcohol limits your ability to enjoy yourself. Let’s stop pretending that it’s a guaranteed good time and accept that good drunk sex is like a unicorn: rare.

Don’t expect alcohol to get you laid. Alcohol is not your social crutch nor your pardon for bad behavior. If you need to “loosen someone up” to have sex with them, then you shouldn’t be hooking up in the first place. Be wary of acquaintances that push or encourage others to drink. Consent should be freely given, not coerced by alcohol or drugs.

Don’t blame victims who were drinking at the time of their assault. Drinking is not a crime; rape is. Placing the blame on the survivor only perpetuates self-doubt and hurt. Drinking might make people more vulnerable to sexual assault, but it doesn’t make them more culpable for what happened to them. Drinking makes it harder for victims to perceive risks or to resist force, and perpetrators are always wholly accountable for their actions whether alcohol was involved or not.

Lastly, we need to make this a team effort. Most of the literature about the dangers of drinking is targeted toward women. Women are told to watch their drink, their friends, and their intake, as if this will magically keep them safe from assault. This is victim blaming, and it doesn’t look at the larger picture of how alcohol relates to rape culture. If we truly want to change rape culture, everyone – regardless of their gender – should be taught to recognize the risks of drinking for themselves and others.

Gentry Hodnett is our Administrative Services Coordinator. She manages our office and provides integral staff support.

Help “Raise the Bar” in Our Community

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Sexual violence happens in private businesses, private residences, and public spaces. We are striving to create a community where sexual violence is not tolerated in any environment. Private business owners who maintain a liquor license can help make this happen by setting clear expectations for their patrons and empowering their staff to a model positive behavior for our community. Private businesses have the ability to prevent sexual violence from happening at their establishments as well as after their patrons leave their business.

Since 2013, UNC Student Wellness has partnered with the Orange County Rape Crisis Center, the Carolina Women’s Center, and the Chapel Hill Police Department to implement Raise the Bar, a training that provides bar staff with the tools to recognize warning signs of drug facilitated sexual assault and strategies to intervene when they see them. Raise the Bar discusses bystander intervention strategies specifically for bar staff.

Alcohol is the most common substance used in drug facilitated sexual assault (DFSA), making bar staff particularly crucial allies in preventing sexual violence. Since we cannot identify perpetrators of DFSA by the way they look, we have to pay attention to their behavior. A perpetrator may take advantage when someone chooses to use drugs or alcohol, or they may intentionally give someone drugs or alcohol. For example, a potential perpetrator may pay a lot of attention to someone who is intoxicated, continue to buy drinks for that person, or try to isolate them away from their friends. They may also test boundaries, and ignore when someone says or acts like they are not interested. Bar staff may witness any of these behaviors and have the power to intervene before a potential perpetrator can harm someone.

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The Red Zone

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red zoneThe first six to ten weeks of the semester are referred to as the “red zone” for sexual assault, meaning that a large percentage of sexual assault on college campuses happens during this time. Understanding the inherent risks of your new environment can dramatically reduce the potential for dangerous situations to arise. It is important to be educated about what sexual assault is and the best ways to prevent harm to yourself or those around you.

Know the facts about consent and interpersonal violence. Consent is a verbal, sober, continuous, and positive yes. If they have to be convinced, it is not consent. If they are not sober, it is not consent. Consent is freely given and freely withdrawn. This means that consent one time or for one act does not mean consent for every time or for every act.

Be an advocate for others. If you are not seeking ways to be a part of the solution, you are a part of the problem. Do your best to watch out for potentially dangerous situations and intervene when possible, keeping in mind that there are resources for help available at all hours of the day and night.

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The Sexual Abuse-to-Prison Pipeline

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At the Intersections of Race, Gender, and Mass Incarceration

Over the past couple of years, sexual violence in America has received much more attention as the issue of sexual assault on college campuses has exploded into the mainstream consciousness. As the public, students, and higher education institutions continue to grapple with this epidemic, the Human Rights Project for Girls reminds us with their recently released study, The Sexual Abuse To Prison Pipeline: The Girls’ Story, that sexual violence does not impact only college age youth. It impacts young girls, particularly young girls of color (primarily African-Americans, Latinas, and Native Americans) as well as youth who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) or gender non-conforming (GNC). Young girls of color and LGBT/GNC girls are at a particularly high risk because the justice system punishes youth of color and youth who do not conform to gender norms much more harshly than their white heterosexual counterparts.

What does sexual abuse have to do with incarceration?

Experiencing sexual abuse puts girls at enormous risk for arrest and incarceration. When girls are arrested, it is rarely because they have committed a violent crime. More often than not, they are arrested because they have become truant, run away, or engage in substance abuse (which are called status offenses for youth under 18). Why did they stop going to school or run away from home? The answer, in many cases, is that girls are running away from abusive situations. They are then arrested and locked up for running away.  This is the cycle that is the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline. At the root of this cycle is sexual violence. The reactions girls have to this violence — which they are punished for — are merely coping behaviors.

Wait, so…they are victims of sexual abuse, and they run away to escape the abuse, but running away is a crime, so they get arrested?

Yep. That’s what is so unjust about all of this. Girls become involved with the juvenile justice system because of the way they have responded to the trauma of sexual abuse. But running away, truancy, and substance abuse are all common and understandable reactions to abuse and ought to be treated as warning signs and NOT criminalized.

The juvenile justice system does not have a great history of adequately addressing trauma. In fact, the reason why the sexual abuse-to-prison pipeline is considered a cycle is that young girls often end up right back whether they started. First, they are victims of sexual violence. Then, they engage in coping behaviors that result in their incarceration. Next, they are subject to the traumatic experience of incarceration itself with very limited access to services. Finally, they are released back into the initially abusive environment, where they once again engage in the same trauma coping behaviors. And what do you think happens then? They are arrested again. Rinse and Repeat. And Repeat. And Repeat.

Well, this is a bit overwhelming. What are we supposed to do?

It sure is overwhelming.  The thing about responding to social injustice is that there’s never just one solution. There are people who are doing a lot of work to change laws and policies that negatively impact the lives of youth who are victims of sexual violence. And that’s a good thing. But there are also things that we can do as social workers, community educators, crisis intervention specialists, and community members.

Acknowledge that sexual violence impacts everyone across race, class, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity.

Make the connections. Child sexual abuse is a problem. The mass incarceration of people of color in this country is a problem. These two problems are connected. There are some organizations that have analyzed the connections between the prison system and sexual violence.

Respond appropriately. Sexual violence is not just about the act itself. It brings with it many repercussions that are faced primarily by the victims and not nearly enough by the perpetrators. We need to make sure that the aftermath of sexual violence is not as traumatic as — or MORE traumatic than — the act itself.

Look deeper. What we see as defiant or undesirable behavior on the part of youth are often responses to and symptoms of trauma. Take the time to figure out what is really going on instead of witnessing a behavior and immediately labeling it as problematic.

Speak out. Find and contact your representative today! Join Rights4Girls in telling our members of Congress that child sex trafficking and gender-based violence against young women and girls must end now.

I mean it when I say that we can end sexual violence. But it’s going to take all of us working together to make a change.

Dolores Chandler recently joined the Center as our Prevention Coordinator. As a member of the Community Education team, they coordinate our StartStrong program, working to prevent peer-to-peer perpetration of violence among adolescents.

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